The Pointlessness of Writing Nonfiction


“A word is a bud attempting to become a twig. How can one not dream while writing? It is the pen which dreams. The blank page gives the right to dream.”            ― Gaston Bachelard

A week or so ago, I outlined a possibly essay, but I don’t know whether or not I actually need to write it. My usual outlines for nonfiction/personal/narrative essays consist of a list of topics and subtopics. The essay that comes out of an outline like that is exploratory in nature. The topics allow me to “try out” fitting ideas together and see if any of them fit my lived experience. When Michel de Montaigne invented the form we now call “essays” in English, he named it after the French verb “essayer”: to try. At its heart, I think that the personal essay should be a case of trial and error and discovery. If it is not, it is a different beast altogether.

It is, in fact, an expository essay, that bane of high school and college student existence, that thesis statement supported by subclaims and evidence and all that malarkey. I teach this every semester, so I am painfully familiar with the genre. It has great worth, particularly for political and social argumentation. I just find it a little boring to write.

The outline I wrote was of the second kind, more a list of premises and hypotheses: if this leads to this, then that leads to that. But here is the question: If I already know what the essay is probably going to argue, is there any point in writing it? What will I learn from turning sentences into paragraphs? It doesn’t seem to be a particularly publishable set of ideas, so if I won’t learn from it or be able to get a publishing credit for it, it feels like I should probably spend my time doing something else.



“What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak….it was born in the moments when we accumulated silent things within us.” ― Gaston Bachelard

Lately I have been playing with a metaphor for the changes I have been witnessing within myself: that certain people (human and furrier) have rearranged the furniture in my head (or possibly heart). What I had not really considered is that the different things inside me might have more or less import than others. Bachelard’s comment suggests that some of the things themselves are silent and equates that with our being unable to speak, so a silent thing inside leads to silence outside. So is the flipside of this idea that loud things lead us to speak loudly?

This makes a lot of sense, especially if you look at internalized oppression. In one person, that kind of institutional wrong could be held tightly silent on the inside and lead to a keeping-your-head-down kind of silence or a shame-filled silence; in another person, it could lead instead to rebellion, activism, or some other form of proud rejection of the wrong being done and the ideas behind it.

I think, though, that other “things” are a bit more like cats: sometimes purring, sometimes snoring, sometimes quietly patting us on the face to wake us out of a dead sleep or a crazy dream, pointing us in the direction of the cat food, the pragmatic necessities and the sweet varieties that life offers on a daily basis. These are generally not things that require yelling or even singing; they certainly do not demand our silence.

So then, if I return to my idea for this blog, that poetry can be sublime, ridiculous and useful, I also return to what sort of speaking poetry can do on a given day: give voice to the things that do not dare speak, tune the angry things to a frequency people will be able to hear, and hum simple tunes to keep our voices warm and ready to say the words that are still slowly making their way toward articulation.



Poetry puts language in a state of emergence, in which life becomes manifest through its vivacity. These linguistic impulses, which stand out from the ordinary rank of pragmatic language, are miniatures of the vital impulse.” ― Gaston Bachelard

As I have mentioned before, in science, emergence is the process/concept that/whereby a thing has characteristics that are not shared by its component parts. Hydrogen and oxygen do not necessarily glitter, gurgle or slake thirst by themselves, though when put together as water, they do. Mind is an emergent property of the physical brain and its chemicals and electrical impulses. Like that.

So words, which written in the dictionary and unread, do not have the power they have when we put them together, read them and speak them. Nothing about each word separately—and still less each letter separately—moves people to go to war, make peace, marry each other or even laugh when laughter seems impossible. All of this comes from the emergent nature of language. To take language a step further, we can talk about poetry.

(And I should make clear that we could just as easily talk about science writing, since it is kind of amazing that we can communicate the incredible microcosms and macrocosm of our universe, brain to brain, through language filtered through the scientific process. This is only different from poetry in that the beauty of the content is foregrounded; the beauty of the carrier of the content—language—is usually pretty dry, although I have heard lots of arguments for the aesthetic appeal of the math. Sorry, that bit is lost on me. But I believe these people because when they say it, they get all starry-eyed.)

I am not sure that Bachelard is using this particular definition of emergence in his statement above. I think he is saying something more, perhaps that while language shares in the magic of emergence, poetry puts language on steroids, and the emergence that is made possible through poetry is something more like the Big Bang, not just a universe but a universe full of universes may come into being, like Sir Terry Pratchett’s Multiverse. Similarly, poetry makes possible not simply beautiful images and ideas but the possibility of Beauty itself. Not to get Platonic here, but there is nothing inherent in a massive explosion of matter or words that should create sentience or souls or song.

It shouldn’t. But it does.

How We Make the Road


So a while back I came across a few lines from the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, used them for an epigraph for a chapter in my theology thesis and then, as one does, forgot all about him. Then a few days ago, I was digging around on my desk and found another line I had written down and then presumably used as a bookmark until it worked itself loose and found me again, which I wrote about a few days ago. That made me look into him further and I found this bit of a poem.


Wanderer, your footsteps are

the road and nothing more;

wanderer, there is no road,

the road is made by walking.

Walking makes the road,

and turning to look behind

you see the path that you

will never tread again.

Wanderer, there is no road,

only foam trails on the sea.


Given that every writer of application essays EVER tends to use The Journey as their Metaphor of Choice (this is a professional opinion), I rather like the idea that there is no road, only the walking. And this guy Machado reminds me less of other Spanish poets like Lorca than of the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard for some reason.

And this is a bit odd, because Bachelard says, “What a dynamic, handsome object is a path! How precise the familiar hill paths remain for our muscular consciousness! “Oh, my roads and their cadence.” I don’t know what it means, but I like it.

Bachelard, Gaston. probably The Poetics of Space.

Machado, Antonio. “Proverbios y cantares.” Campos de Castilla, 1912.